Along with climbing Kilimanjaro and going on safari, the third top destination (for good reason) in Tanzania is a trip to Zanzibar. Some of you may not know what/where Zanzibar really is, so first, some quick and cursory history! The Zanzibar Archipelago, which includes the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, served as one of East Africa's most important trading centers for centuries. Its geographical position off the coast of East Africa in the Indian Ocean made it the logical location for supplying slaves, gold, ivory and wood to the Persian Gulf, India, and Asia. Along with spices and textiles from the East came Islam and Arabs. In fact, Omani Arabs had control over the islands for several hundred years, first on their own and then ruling under a British Protectorate, until Zanzibari independence in 1963. In 1964, Zanzibar was united with Tanganyika (mainland Tanzania), and became the United Republic of Tanzania. However, Zanzibar still maintains a much different feel from the mainland. As soon as you step off the plane or ferry, it's as if you've entered the Middle East. Today, Zanzibar Island is solidly on the tourist circuit and is most famous for Stone Town and its gorgeous beaches, especially those on the northern and eastern coasts.
Since our group was so large, and everyone was looking for a few days of blissful relaxation, we booked rooms months in advance at a fancy resort on the eastern side of Zanzibar Island where we would spend five nights over New Year's Eve together. I'll spare you the details of the nightmare we went through with finding, booking, and actually keeping the reservation, but suffice it to say that we worked very hard to stay at this place! It was our first time doing an all-inclusive resort together, but it was the logical choice for a group of 12 friends-- meeting up, eating meals together, and organizing activities is just easier in that kind of setting.
The location and facilities were gorgeous. Much of the island is affected by dramatic high and low tides, so the water's edge at low tide is about 150 meters out, but the resort had put in a walkway, lest we hurt ourselves on the sharp intertidal rocks between the beach and the ocean! We spent our days lounging at the large salt water pool (with swim up bar!) or under the palm trees on the beach, taking dips in the crystal-clear ocean, spending sun breaks and playing cards at the airy bar (creatively named Zanzi...bar), and eating large meals at the buffet restaurant. In many ways, the all-inclusive experience shelters you from where you are: at times, it almost felt as though we could have been anywhere-- the Dominican Republic, Cancun, Hawaii -- but for constantly hearing the staff say"pole pole" (Swahili for "slowly, slowly"-- and they aren't exaggerating!) and "hakuna matata" (Swahili for "no worries" -- you've seen Lion King, yes?). The resort is owned and run by Italians, which means that almost all the clientele are Europeans. If nothing else, that at least meant that pasta was served at every meal, and I got to brush up on my wishy-washy knowledge of a few romance languages. However, it seems as though tourists come here to "experience" Tanzania with all the European comforts they are used to, which ends up resulting in somewhat forced nightly cultural "performances" that ranged from seemingly genuine, to entertaining (one of our friends ended up in the Masaai dance circle with a boa constrictor around his neck!), to somewhat circus-like and devoid of any cultural connection. I will give the place an absolute hats-off for the New Year's Eve dinner they pulled off: every type of food imaginable was served in a gorgeous setting around the pool and on the beach, and everyone who tasted it agreed that the grilled lobster was by far the most delicious we had ever tasted. It was quite possibly the most indulgant and opulent spread of food many of us had ever seen.
In the end, the resort met our expectations for pampering and relaxation (except for a few of our friends who ended up with various stomach bugs-- we felt awful for them!), but I don't think our five days there gave us a good feeling for Zanzibari culture. Then again, I don't think anyone should expect these kind of fancy resorts to genuinely convey the culture of the people living outside the walls. We enjoyed our stay for what it was, and the most important part of the vacation was spending quality time with our DC friends!